To Jeff Smisek, CEO of United Airlines

TO: Jeff Smisek, CEO United Airlines

FROM: Everett Maroon, Mileage Plus Member XXXXXXX

DATE: 9/4/2012

RE: Series of poor service incidents from UA Staff

Please let me begin by saying that I appreciate the challenges present for commercial air carriers in the United States today. Your recent merger announcement with Continental is of course predicated in part on finding efficiencies in both business models and improving the destinations and flight coverage for passengers overall. I can’t imagine what pressure your business must be under regarding the logisitics of such a large merger of corporate climates, staff, benefits packages, strategies for future development, and heck, the terrible cost of jet fuel these days.

Because of these oft-reported limitations and tensions, I have been willing to put up with a certain level and number of inconveniences as a frequent traveler–the disappearance of the in-flight meal (they weren’t very good anyway), and later, of the small bag of pretzels, the addition of checked bag fees, and the changing, increasingly invasive security process, which I understand is not under the control of the airlines. Along with these shifts I’ve seen consequences for how I travel–I head to the airport much earlier than before, I plan for snacks ahead of time, I bring only certain bags that are within weight limits or will fit in such-and-such an overhead compartment. I have rejiggered my traveling strategy because now I have a 1-year-old child, and I acknowledge that my customer experience expectations have evolved because of all of these changes from the airlines, the world we live in, and my personal life.

All of that said, I am extremely disappointed with my latest experience flying with (and attempting to fly with) your airline. Today was the last straw, but let me be clear: what I describe here, that occurred this morning at San Francisco Airport was really just another moment of poor service that I will detail next. The only difference with this latest incident is that the repercussions from it have cost me and my family an entire day when we should have been home early (it’s after midnight as I write this, Mr. Smisek), and more than $600 in car rental fees and gas. Here is what went wrong for us:

1. My wife purchased, in March of this year, two round-trip tickets for her and me to fly from PSC to SFO at the end of August. Because we would also be flying with our infant, she made note of an infant-in-arms on the ticket. And because we’ve traveled with him before, we know that we need to get seats assigned on the side of the plane with the extra oxygen masks. Nothing on United’s web site identifies which side these are on for each model of plane (unlike Delta Airlines’ and Southwest Airlines’ sites), so she called the toll-free number to speak with a representative. The first time she called the United employee said they had no idea what she was talking about. She called a second time and again, they informed her there was no such issue or policy. The third time she called she once more could not find a United phone representative with experience directing customers to the appropriate seats if they had an infant-in-arms. So my wife picked the side of the plane that she’d used the last time she flew the same route, hoping it was the right call. And once we were literally boarding the plane, the flight attendant saw the baby and asked my wife where her seat was located. Because at least the flight attendant knew the baby needed his own oxygen mask.

2. On July 28, 2012, United Airlines sent us an email saying our flight to SFO had been rescheduled. While we were originally flying earlier in the day, we would now be leaving at 8:00PM. This is our baby’s bedtime, and not a time we would have selected as our preference. We went online to see if we could reschedule. The early morning flight was booked, as the departure date was only a month out at this point, and in any case we would have incurred a penalty to pay if we attempted to book a different flight that better met our needs. We stuck with the reassigned flight and wrestled our tired baby for the entire flight time of 95 minutes.

3. Shortly before we landed at SFO last week, the flight attendant told the passengers that although we would be arriving at Terminal 1,  all checked baggage was going to Terminal 3, and that someone at the gate would direct us to our bags. There was no such person at the gate, but we read the signage for baggage claim and boarded the AirTrain to get to Terminal 3. Between walking, waiting for elevators (baby and stroller, see), and the AirTrain, it took us an hour to reach the terminal. Once we were there we could find no signs for which flights’ bags were at which baggage carousel. I saw no fewer than five United Airlines employees in uniform, and I asked each of them if there was a board where I could see where our bag was, and each and every one of them said they couldn’t help me. I stood in line to talk to the single UA employee at the baggage claim information desk, and it was another passenger, from an entirely different flight, who pointed out that the PSC flight’s bags were at carousel 6, at the other end of the bag claim area.

4. The morning before our departure from SFO back to PSC, my wife got an email thanking us for checking into our flight. We hadn’t done anything to check in, and nothing in the email said that this was an automatic process. When we fly with other airlines, we check in ourselves and are used to doing it that way.

5. This morning (or rather, yesterday, 9/3/12), my wife and I arrived to SFO Airport at 6:30 and dropped off our rental car. We took the AirTrain to Terminal 3 to check a bag and get our boarding passes, but upon exiting the elevator at the terminal were met with a very chaotic situation. Again, I understand that SFO’s renovations presents airlines with additional challenges of space and moving passengers from ticketing counters to their gates. However, nothing was marked adequately. The security line butted up against a line for buying tickets, which was right next to one of two check-in areas. It was quite literally a mob scene. While the UA counter had signage over the employees heads, the corralling ropes were not aligned with these, so it was difficult to tell which area to enter in order to receive a particular service. And to even experienced travelers like my wife and I, seeing a sign marked “Tickets” did not imply that it was in any way different than getting boarding passes. However, we were originally in the correct line for check-in.

A UA employee, an older white-haired, short man, was waving people out of our line. He asked if we were just needing boarding passes. I said we need the boarding passes and to check a bag. He pointed to another line for us, so we got out of our line and stood at the end of another one. Many people were walking around asking questions about where they should be. Some people who needed passes were standing in security by mistake. We got up to the counter and said we needed our boarding passes and to check a bag. The UA employee, a middle-aged woman with dark long hair, told us that we were in the wrong line. And then she looked like she was done with me, and turned away. Having already stood in two lines for ten minutes, I asked if she couldn’t just help us here. Again she told us that we needed to go to another line, and waved in the direction past the security line, but with no specific information. My wife said that our flight was leaving at 7:54.

“Oh, then you’ve already missed it,” she said. It was 7:05. How could this be?

“We cut off at 45 minutes to the flight’s departure.” Well, we had a few minutes on top of that, but she absolutely refused to help us. She said she would rebook us on the flight for the next day. This wouldn’t work because we had obligations the next day. She was unmoved. We asked about any other flights that day, and she told us the evening flight to PSC was already booked. She could put us on standby or book us for the next day. I asked if there was another airline we could try. She refused a request of mine again, and did not look up any other flights, nor did she look into other UA flights to nearby airports. It was as if she really didn’t care about us as passengers or as people. We had a baby with us, and we should just what, hang around the airport all day and see if we could get onto the evening flight? Find a hotel in San Francisco at the last minute? She didn’t care. We were of no concern to her.

We considered trying to find that special other line, but at this point we were under the 45 minute mark and figured that every United Airlines employee would treat us the same way. I remarked to my wife that I couldn’t understand why we were being denied the very chance to try to make the flight, since it wasn’t even boarding yet. If this UA employee didn’t care about what happened to us, why not check our bag, collect the fee, and let us worry about whether it made that flight or not? For us as travelers, our priority is us getting to our destinations on time. Of course we also want our luggage, but we primarily wanted ourselves to make our connections.

I called Enterprise Car Rentals and reserved a one-way car to drive the 770 miles to PSC Airport. All of the fees including the one-way fee, airport fee, taxes, and rental rate came out to $570. With two fillups of gas the grand total for the 15-hour car ride was $650. The cost aside, I cannot remember a time in all of my dealings with Enterprise in which I felt dismissed, condescended to, or ignored. They have got customer management and appreciation down to an art form.

We made it to PSC at 10:50PM, having left SFO at 8:20AM. We are exhausted, extremely frustrated, and wondering why we would ever fly on United Airlines again.

Here’s the real nail in the coffin. That flight we “missed” this morning? It was delayed at the last minute and did not take off until 8:18, 24 minutes late. We most certainly should have been able to make that flight. I think our experience with this entire purchase shows a systematic failure of training and of customer service. Until your company gets the basics of professional communication and helpfulness down, no merger is going to help your long-term outlook.

Thanks for listening.

EDIT: I heard back from United! It appears that again, they don’t understand that there’s really a problem here.

Dear Mr. Maroon:

Thank you for contacting United Airlines.

I understand you wanted to speak directly with our CEO. Mr. Smisek does spend time reading letters and talking to customers; however, he has selected a team to respond to a majority of the customers on his behalf. Mr. Smisek has placed me in a position to respond to your concerns and communicate your comments to the appropriate departments.

Mr. Maroon, I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience created during your recent travel. The behavior you described is not reflective of our commitment to providing our customers the highest level of service. I apologize for the negative impression this situation created. We intend to provide a high-quality experience, tailored to meet the individual needs of our passengers.

Based on your comments, we did not meet your expectations, and I regret you were not satisfied with the service provided. Your feedback will be used in future coaching and training as we continue to improve our service.

Thank you for the opportunity to address your concerns.

We appreciate your business and look forward to welcoming you on board a future United Airlines flight.


Christina Fiallos

Customer Care Manager

ezCare ID# 5651051


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Categories: driving, Travel


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7 Comments on “To Jeff Smisek, CEO of United Airlines”

  1. September 4, 2012 at 3:42 am #

    What a horrible experience! I’m so glad you arrived safely. An impromptu 15-hour drive might have been okay for me as a college student, but no way would I be up to it with a baby. You’re amazing.

    • evmaroon
      September 4, 2012 at 6:28 am #

      I told Susanne in hour 8 or so of driving that I was getting too old for this! Thanks for the love, Johanna.

  2. September 4, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    holy shit, that is ridiculous. Good thing you are as good-natured as you are. Get some sleep!

  3. Jessica
    September 4, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    I had a similar experience at a United check-in counter at O’Hare at the end of June. I stood at the counter for ~20 minutes waiting to check a bag while more than one employee completely ignored my existence. An employee helped a customer at the check-in desk to my right (who arrived there after me), looked at me blankly, then walked away. Another employee stood directly in front of me for several moments without looking at or acknoeledging me, then ALSO walked away. A couple of other people behind the counter were walking back and forth near the baggage belt without acknowledging ANY of the customers. I’m usually pretty chill about people with high-intensity customer service jobs, but this was just beyond anything I’d ever dealt with. This particular trip was work-related, so the airline choice was made for me. Given my own choice, however, I will never fly United again.

  4. Gary
    September 5, 2012 at 6:02 am #

    “A couple of other people behind the counter were walking back and forth near the baggage belt without acknowledging ANY of the customers”

    These may have been contract employees whose job is to deal with the bags on the belt. They do not work in customer service or for United. However, since the average customer is not aware of this, it’s something that needs to change–either keep them busy 100% of the time or find a position hidded from the customer!

  5. Jen
    September 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

    Wow! This will definitely make me think twice before ever booking with United. YIKES.

  6. Dom
    September 28, 2012 at 3:02 pm #

    Hi Ev:

    I’m so sorry that you had to put up with this kind of nonsense from UA. There’s no excuse for it. Unfortunately, it seems to be common these days.

    I wouldn’t be at all satisfied with UA’s response. In fact, I would file a complaint with the DOT over this issue. It’s pretty simple. Just copy your letter and UA’s response, and paste it into the DOT complaint form on the DOT web site.

    I can’t promise that it’ll make any difference, but it could. Considering that it’s fairly easy to file a DOT complaint, you might as well give it a shot.

    Best of luck!

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